Shire probe into permits

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MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire is reviewing all permit approvals involving three companies at the centre of an investigation into allegations of corruption involving land developments in the City of Casey.

The Mornington-based companies under scrutiny by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and now the shire are Watsons Pty Ltd, Schutz Consulting Pty Ltd and Wolfdene Built Pty Ltd.

IBAC is set to broaden the scope of its inquiry when it resumes next year.

Watsons’ engineers, planners and developers have been involved in hundreds of planning permit applications on the peninsula.

The largest is the $650 million (2002 estimate by City Pacific) Martha Cove marina and residential development at Safety Beach.

Planning at Martha Cove has undergone many changes over the past two decades and seen the number of planned residences jump from 900 to 1167 (“Shire ‘all clear’ for changes at Martha Cove” The News 22/8/16).

The shire issued a statement last Thursday saying it “has commenced undertaking and will continue to undertake a review of all approvals relating to Watsons Pty Ltd, Schutz Consulting Pty Ltd and Wolfdene Built Pty Ltd and the probity around those decisions, including declared conflicts of interest [by councillors]”.

Cr David Gill said there should be no limit on how far back the shire looked when reviewing the permits involving the three companies.

“We need to find out everything. If councillors, politicians and anyone else involved turned a blind eye they should be held accountable,” Cr Gill said.

The shire’s decision to investigate permits involving the three companies follows similar moves by Frankston and Kingston councils.

Frankston councillors have called for a report detailing “whether any of the developers or named actors [in the IBAC hearings] have had applications lodged in Frankston or have had representations made to Frankston City Council”. They also want to know how to “strengthen and protect” Frankston’s planning decisions to avoid anything similar happening there to what has occured at Casey.

Kingston councillors are also taking a look at applications approved by council that may have involved property developer and Watsons director John Woodman.

Mr Woodman unsuccessfully stood for Mornington Peninsula Shire’s Briars Ward in 2012 and 2016.

In the November 2016 council election, Watsons donated $2489 to Briars Ward candidate Rosemary Clark and $1244 to David Cassells, who stood unsuccessfully in Cerberus Ward.

In his candidate’s statement, Mr Woodman urged voters to make Rosie Clark their second preferred candidate.

Cr Clark, now deputy mayor, was subsequently elected to represent the Briars Ward.

During the 2016 campaign, Ms Clark was ordered by the Victorian Electoral Commission to remove billboard-size how-to-vote signs from near Nepean Highway; similar signs (including one for Mr Woodman) in a Mt Eliza park were removed by the shire.

A profile on the shire’s website describes Cr Clark’s “professional background” as “share broking and real estate in both Mount Eliza and Martha Cove”.

Cr Clark told The News on Friday that she had known Mr Woodman and his family for 30 years.

She used the money donated to her campaign by Watsons to pay for signs.

Cr Clark said she did not feel she was “at liberty” to comment on the shire’s decision to review its dealings with Watsons or Mr Woodman, but said “the majority of applications by Watsons were rejected”.

The three-week long IBAC hearings, which began 18 November, generated wide public interest with a central, Ferrari-driving character (John Woodman); hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations being made to local councillors, MPs (Labor and Liberal) and political parties; bags of cash delivered to one councillor by a former mayor and state MP; and, the promise of a $100 million prize hanging on a minister’s stroke of a pen to allow rezoning of land.

This potent mix being unravelled at the IBAC hearing inspired such headlines as “Developer’s big role in carving up green wedge”, “Follow the money trail: Woodman’s world of cash advances and withdrawals”, “Casey scandal threatens to create planning slowdown”, and “Why John Woodman got away with it for so long” in The Age and “Developer John Woodman caught counting cash in patisserie window” and “Developer invoiced John Woodman $8.5k for Dan Andrews dinners”, in the Herald-Sun.

Martha Cove has so far been the only peninsula development to get much of a mention at IBAC hearings, and The News has been told that documents relating to it have already been sent to investigators.

Witnesses appearing before the IBAC are told that while the commission itself cannot launch criminal proceedings based on evidence given at the hearings, it can prosecute for perjury.

They are further warned not to assume that the IBAC does not already know the answer to questions being asked.

Early on in the hearings, the IBAC announced that its investigators had used electronic eavesdropping devices, including phone taps, and had secretly taken photographs as well as seizing documents.

First published in the Mornington News – 24 December 2019

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